It's the day of our Christmas party and as is Blake Friedmann tradition, we're sharing our staff's cultural highlights for 2016!
A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara – Yes, it’s long and devastating as they say. But, one of the most addictive novels I’ve read in years, one that kept me hooked until 3 in the morning. The prose is absolutely irresistible, sad, brave, and generous, as its characters. It left me broken-hearted but at the same time it taught me an unforgettable lesson about friendship, and about that kind of selfless, ever forgiving, hopeful against all odds love that we see so rarely in our lives.
IT’S ALL ABSOLUTELY FINE by Ruby Elliot – Before being a published comic book, there was a Tumblr blog which I’ve been following and loving for years. Just a few weeks ago the book came out and I was so proud of Ruby (you follow a complete stranger on social media and after a while you think you know them… We live in a weird world) so I’m giving a spot to her. Her comics are extremely relatable, and she manages to present a funny, sarcastic but always truthful image of the life of a girl struggling with mental health. She is also on Instagram, check her out!
LEMONADE by Beyoncé – Empowering, feminist, brave, absolutely fierce. This woman is such an inspiration. She publicly destroys her husband for cheating on her (providing us with a bunch of angsty songs perfect for a pre-fight prep), while also finding time to address sexism and racism in America – The Formation video is absolutely iconic. This album gives me strength.
I absolutely loved the short TV drama series FLEABAG – A real-world MIRANDA.. Funny, irreverent, painful. I watched it back to back then demanded my friends did the same so we could talk about it!
I can’t stop listening to the Tom Odell Album WRONG CROWD. I know I’m overplaying it but I just can’t help myself…
My family viewing pleasure is PLANET EARTH 2. David Attenborough has a voice like liquid gold and the footage is mind-blowing.
Nocturnal Animals by Tom Ford: Wow. A cinematic piece of art, and an emotional punch in the stomach.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: I loved this book. Engrossing, , deeply moving and depressing as hell at times… and yet, when I finished it I also felt hopeful in human nature’s ability to hope and love.
Abstract Expressionism at The Royal Academy: Immense and beautiful. It's on until 2 January, go go go!
We have an annual agency summer outing, something communal and cultural, then a jolly good lunch together after. This year we had a choice of destination, either St Pauls, or Tate Modern across the river, with its Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition and new extension. I love the grandeur of St Pauls but figured it’ll be there a bit longer, while the O’Keeffe paintings won’t... I’ve been fascinated by O’Keeffe ever since I was a girl and saw photos of the artist and her work in a compilation of classic LIFE magazine images. Her New Mexico desert landscapes didn’t feel that far from my own Karoo world and I loved the feeling of boldness and restraint, strength and sensitivity in the flower and bone paintings, long before I knew much about art. So I was a bit afraid that the Tate would be a let-down. But of course it wasn’t. My distanced idolisation and imagination couldn’t create a fraction of the impact of her paintings, the force and colour of the works. I’m just sorry The Lawrence Tree wasn’t on display here – and how I’d love to actually see the tree…
Later in the summer my husband and I went to Taormina for a few days, part of my D.H. Lawrence quest for a poetry project – and there I read Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, his fascinating, laugh-out-loud funny book about NOT writing a book about D.H. Lawrence. It’s an absolute delight – a book about travel, procrastination, literature, life and yes, Lawrence, and I know I’ll read it again.
And we’re just back from a trip to Cuba where my husband and I ran the Marabana race to raise money for Parkinson’s UK. He ran the half marathon, and I ran the 10km – partly because he’s fitter than me, partly because I wanted to spare my limbs for a bit of salsa. And for me one of the greatest highlights of my year was the son and salsa music everywhere in Havana, from smarter hotels, to casual corner bars. And a memorable rehearsal by a fourteen-piece salsa band, which we just happened to walk past and the exuberant drummer waved us in to join them. The concert was set for Sunday, after we flew back, so we knew we couldn’t make it, but loved the energetic rehearsal. And as Castro died the night after we left, and the nine days of mourning began, their Sunday show wouldn’t have been able to take place as planned. It’s hard to imagine a Havana without music…
Hamilton Soundtrack: It’s no understatement to say that Hamilton has been my obsession this year. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is completely genius – telling the story of one of America’s Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton, it addresses themes of race, gender, legacy, history, nationhood, loyalty and rivalry, class, family, and the eternal question of pragmatism vs idealism. For a story set almost a quarter of a century ago, it feels incredibly contemporary and in the current political climate, incredibly relevant. Don’t wait for it to hit the West End later next year – listen to the soundtrack now, and you won’t regret it.
Please Like Me: Personally I’ve felt that 2016 has been a year of comedies that weren’t really funny – until I discovered this Australian sitcom. Josh Thomas plays a 20-something who has just come out as gay, and the series focuses on his family and friends. It deals with serious subject matter including mental illness and grief, but it feels very light and optimistic in tone, and the characters are all beautifully real and lovable.
The Dublin Murder Squad Series by Tana French: I was completely sucked into this series, reading the whole thing back-to-back and often in five or six hour stints when I just could not put the books down. Tana French’s detectives are beautifully depicted and three-dimensional, and there’s always more to these mysteries than meets the eye. My favourite was BROKEN HARBOUR – an incredible story about humanity’s battle to keep the wild out.
POCKET – my favourite app. You curate your own magazine with articles from the web (especially digital magazines and newspapers where you only want to read a couple of articles); Twitter leads to great film and TV industry articles; gardening too. I have the best magazine in the world in my phone.
David Attenborough’s PLANET EARTH II: almost makes you wonder if it worth going exploring since you can never see such detail or behaviour in real time. I wish TV drama was as good!
SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari: reminds us how transient modern society is; and how slow evolution is. The next ice age is inevitable but doubt that our selfish elite will arrange sufficient adaptation except for themselves.
THE GREAT DICTATOR directed, produced, written and starring Charlie Chaplin is a political satire comedy drama and also Chaplin’s first sound film. For film and history lovers, released in 1940, this is an (multiple!) award winning movie, satirizing the rule of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. But apart from its political references, the film has a humanistic aspect that remains surprisingly contemporary and is bound to make anyone think.
Here’s my favourite part:
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost....
THE WOMAN IN BLACK in Fortune Theatre London. There is nothing I can say that has not already been said. Just go see it!
BLOODY EARTH by Dido Sotiriou (Original Title: Mατωμενα Xωματα, published by Kedros). A classic for Greeks. Based on the true events of the Asia Minor Catastrophe the novel is a very emotional read. Realistic, bold and chilling it is guaranteed to stay with you.
Film: Hell or High Water (Commancheros)
I'm going to cheat here and count the film and soundtrack as one choice. I went to see this as it was the only film on in English and wasn’t expecting much but from the first few notes of the brilliant score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave and the stunning New Mexico landscapes I knew it was going to be alright. Songs from Townes Van Zandt and other favourites, Jeff Bridges as a grizzled old cop, great dialogue - a classic western but utterly contemporary. Throw in The Hateful Eight from earlier in the year and I’m about ready to embrace the western again.
Book: A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
I picked this up from one of those piles of recommended reads in the bookshop, intrigued at first by the title but as I flicked through the pages I kept finding more and more gems of brilliant writing and had to look at just another couple of pages. Intelligent and funny (in parts), my favourite combination.
The main feature of the local area is the collection of UNESCO listed slag heaps so discovering this outpost of the Louvre nearby was exciting. The main gallery is one long room with a rotating collection of artworks from the Louvre arranged in historical order from roughly 3000 BC to Napoleon. Some incredible pieces and just the right size so you can spend time looking at things properly. Other local attractions include a clog museum, a chicory museum and of course a slag heap museum, all worthy competitors but somehow I haven’t quite got round to visiting any of those yet.
Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Robert Icke
In Watermelon Sugar
In a very mixed-up year, three events have really stuck with me as memorable distractions and an excellent lift to the spirits: the first of these was seeing John Grant sing at the Millennium Centre in Wales; I love his rich, deep voice, and this was the first time I've seen him live. My favourite song of his is one where he recites all the sweets in his childhood sweetshop, Marz - no one can croon 'butterscotch' like he can…
Next was my film of the year: warm, funny and I wept completely unnecessary amounts: Bridget Jones's Baby. It's everything that's enjoyable about the first film (let's pretend the 2nd doesn't exist), with added poignancy because everyone is older, but not really any wiser.
Lastly, I've cheated slightly and picked a new favourite author rather than a book, since I read two of hers: Elizabeth Strout. I took Olive Kitteridge on holiday and savoured this portrait of a very 'ordinary' woman and the impact she had on the small town around her. And then I read My Name is Lucy Barton more recently, and Elizabeth Strout deals so subtly and skilfully with those delicate, complex relationships with women at their heart. I can't explain it well, only recommend you read her work.
Undoubtedly my musical highlight of the year was seeing this 24 year old pianist’s recital at St John’s Smith Square in October. He is of course already supremely acclaimed. I think Gramophone described him as one in a million. One talks of exceptional artists being a one on 25 year event, or a one in fifty year event, and there is something about Grosvenor’s alliance of interpretative genius and utter keyboard mastery that seems to put him above a lot of very big names. His recital rekindled the enthusiasm of my early teens when I first discovered the classical piano repertoire and the multi-layered emotional, cerebral, sensory sensation of a great piano recital. Hearing a brilliantly talented human being at the very limits of concentration engaged in the tumultuous complexity and passion of this repertoire is to witness a transformation by which the human becomes divine, in some sense taking us with them. It is quite something to be alive at the same time as this phenomenal artist. That he is British makes it even better. Any of CDs is wondrous. But see if you can see/hear him live.
The Penguin Book of English Song by Richard Stokes
This collection of English poetry assembled by translator Richard Stokes, who is also Professor of Lieder Interpretation at the Royal Academy, and a recipient of the Iron Cross for services to German culture, is gold dust. The obvious readership will be singers and accompanists, but nobody interested in the correlation between poetry and the musical setting of poetry should miss this tome. Whereas musicians, and particularly singers tend to come at the poetry through the musical settings first, and thus develop a partial view of the poetic landscape that has inspired composers, this book gives us the inspiring literary landscape in overview, through which one can travel to the numerous settings by different composers of a poem. So there are sections on Shakespeare, and Blake and Hardy, and numerous others, presented in chronological order, each with an introduction by Stokes. Then, significant composers are written about within the poet sections, and there are countless fascinating footnotes around individual poems. Say you’ve never heard Britten’s setting of The Tyger. You flip open your Ipad and dial it up on Youtube and listen to Fisher Dieskau’s terrifying early sixties recording. Say you’re familiar with Finzi’s ‘Let Us Garland’s Bring’ (a Shakespeare selection) but not Roger Quilter’s version of ‘Come Away Death’, same operation and you can hear Ian Bostridge. What this means is that you can encounter the poem first, drink it in, and then, without buying sheet music or a single CD, discover the best settings. That way, you follow the process of the composer’s inspiration. Very often the contrasting settings illuminate quite different responses to the poem in question. And sometimes the mood of a very famous setting eg Ivor Gurney’s version of Sleep (Fletcher) “one of the most beautiful songs inthe world” to quote Finzi, seems very different to the tone of the poem given its context in the play. This is a brilliant book by Richard Stokes and it underscores an important point. We exalt the German Lied and the French Melodie, but English song is a treasure trove too, and this beautifully produced book guarantees many hours of pleasure and a wonderful way into poetry and song.
The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth
I should have read this years ago, as it’s on the masterpiece list. There’s a good essay about Roth in JMCoetzee’s Stranger Shores (required reading) and that was my prompt. It turns out that now is a good point in history to be reading a novel about the spiritual decline of a supra-national state (Austro Hungary) that in so many ways resembles the European Union. Roth’s portrait of three generations of a family in a special honoured relation to the Emperor (an Apostolic Majesty no less) is both nostalgic and expressive of suffocating conformity. Rather than depicting revolutionaries or firebrands, Roth focuses on those who are left behind with the customs and duties and narrowness of the old order’s loyalties and conventions, soldiers who know they are finished if war ever comes, and yet cannot break free of their fatalistic role in the historical process. The novel is unbelievably rich in vivid visual description. Depicting malaise, it is nonetheless an adhesive read. An enormous amount of schnapps is drunk; affairs undertaken; much anguish subsumed into routine and the restrained manners of the time. It gives a voice and a tone to characters from a period in history that was both resplendent and doomed.
Bjork Digital at Somerset House (Exhibition)
Bjork. Up close and very personal (from inside her mouth, looking at her singing at one point). In Virtual Reality. Through Bowers & Wilkins headphones. Doesn’t get much better than that – came a few days after seeing her at Ally Pally accompanied by a string section. Nothing short of genius.
Last Chance U (TV: Netflix Original)
The best sports documentary series ever. Hands down. But it has so much more to give. Even if the game is a mystery to you, I defy you not to be impressed by the feats of athleticism. Beyond that, director Greg Whiteley is a master of pace, the edit is superb and the soundtrack is perfectly pitched. Each win feels like vertigo. Each loss cuts to the heart. The finale is the stuff of Shakespeare. It’s exhausting, but it’s worth every second.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Book)
An utter joy. Smart, original and human. This novel tackles epic themes of gods, messiahs, artificial intelligence and alienness, via two parallel stories of the last survivors of Earth and the inhabitants of a terraformed planet. I’ve not cared about a spider this much since Charlotte.